Bookmarks Issue: 
John Updike

Essays on American Art

A-StillLookingIn this sequel of sorts to Just Looking: Essays on Art, John Updike narrows his focus to American artists. Not intended as a comprehensive treatment, the 18 essays (and many illustrations) cover a wide range of painters and photographers over the past 150 years. Updike discusses well-known artists like Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock, Edward Hopper, and Winslow Homer alongside the lesser-known Arthur Dove and Albert Pinkham Ryder. With a generous, effervescent voice, Updike finds original ways of seeing what is common and distinct in each of his subjects and in turn displays what makes him such a uniquely American writer.
Knopf. 240 pages. $40. ISBN: 1400044189

Christian Science Monitor 4.5 of 5 Stars
"In the end, it is the crystalline prose and the nuanced, precise observations that distinguish this volume. As a result, the book will appeal to those who know little about art history as well as to those who are frequent museum visitors." Terry Hartle

Los Angeles Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Updike’s approach is primarily appreciative but by no means uncritical. … Like all good art and all good writing, Updike’s art criticism helps us see things more clearly, more deeply, with more discernment and, above all, more gusto." Merle Rubin

Seattle Times 4 of 5 Stars
"Updike is generous in his praise for artists, both famed and obscure, but his writing especially shines when describing the work and lives of American legends Edward Hopper and Jackson Pollock—the material is richer and more riveting for these celebrated artists, and so is Updike’s telling." David Takami

Ft. Worth Star-Telegram 3 of 5 Stars
"Reading Updike’s essays about art exhibits in past tense is like hearing about marvelous parties to which you were not invited. When initially published, the essays were within a frame of possibility; there was an opportunity to see these shows. Now the time is past." Gaile Robinson

New York Times 3 of 5 Stars
"Mr. Updike writes as an avid amateur, a first-class appreciator who wants to give the reader his own reactions to individual artists, recording what he sees as their emotional palettes, their stylistic tropes, the long (or short) arc of their careers. … When Mr. Updike turns from specifics to more abstract theorizing, the results are considerably less compelling." Michiko Kakutani

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"Updike knows a lot about art—Updike knows a lot about a lot—but what comes through strongly is his undimmed eagerness to keep learning. Reading his accounts of exhibitions is like strolling around them—not with a lecturer eager to impress but with an affably discerning, well-informed companion." Geoff Dyer

Critical Summary

Published primarily in the New York Review of Books, the collected essays in Still Looking are less art criticism than finely honed art appreciations. Reviewers note Updike’s inquisitive tone and earnest interest in his subject matter. The often honored (an American Book Award, an O. Henry Prize, a National Medal for the Humanities) and prolific author once aspired for a career in cartooning and studied at the Ruskin School of Drawing and Fine Art in Oxford, England. The major complaint, if it can be registered as such, is that Updike is so effective at bringing these works to life that the book, though amply illustrated, provokes frustration that the exhibitions are no longer running.